Friday, 17 January 2014

The Loire - Day 5

Thursday 12th
The view from the hotel
The following morning was the last early tasting of the trip at Domaine Joseph Mellot.  Originating from the same great family history and winemaking experience as Alphonse Mellot, Joseph Mellot went his own way in 1969 creating his own domaine. His son Alexandre continued the strive for quality until his tragic early death. Since then his wife Catherine has continued the work and success of this domaine.

The domaine has expanded into other Loire appellations such as Coteaux du Giennois, Reuilly and Menetou Salon. This diversity has allowed us to have great success with the Joseph Mellot Réserve Prestige Sauvignon Blanc blend, a Val de Loire appellation wine made with 500 years of Sancerre winemaking know how! 

We dropped in on the Pierre Prieur family back in Verdigny; you must to get the right Prieur as all the Prieur families have a domaine of some sort! Domaine Pierre Prieur, a 10th generation winemaking family, makes the best and we found the current generation Bruno and brother Thierry busy in the cellar. These guys live for the domaine and the organised and spotless cellar is full of superb 2013 Sancerre, each vat being a different vineyard and carefully marked with the exact terroir and all made accordingly, every single vat a vital piece of the final blend jigsaw.  

Their father emerged for the tasting of the bottled 2012 up in the tasting room and the wines have a beautiful purity. We also discovered a Gold-medal-winning 2010 red Pinot Noir. These guys are so modest and don’t make a song and dance; they really do just let the wines speak for themselves!
The Prieurs

The news that SNCF had decided to strike today threw all plans of me getting back to Bordeaux by train and Tony and Abi to London via the Eurostar up in the air! But we had one more visit we certainly were not going to miss under any circumstances: Tony’s oldest friend in the Loire, Michel Thomas! 

Michel was Tony’s first contact in this region and today his son Laurent runs the winemaking. The next generation is also coming into the wine trade with Michel’s two grandsons now working in the industry; one in Saint-Emilion the other in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  We tasted through the vats of the excellent 2013 Domaine wines including the complex ‘Cuvee Silex’ before being shown down into the warm vaulted cellar where Madame Thomas had put on an early lunch of home-made savoury tarts and quiches including plenty of local cheeses! We were joined by Tony’s old friend and neighbours of the Thomas’, the Riffault family. A wonderful ambience of stories and laughter was the absolute perfect way to end a fabulous wine trek through the most beautiful valley in France. 
In the cellar with the Thomas family

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Loire - Day 4

Wednesday 11th
It was another early start and temperatures had plummeted over night to -8˚C!  We were driving 130kms west towards Bourges and the appellation of Menetou Salon to meet a new producer Bernard Minchin. Bernard is quite a character and his beaming smile and energy certainly livened up the frosty morning! Bernard’s grandfather had worked vines since before the war in both appellations of Valencay east of Bourges and Menetou Salon to the north-east.  Bernard took control of the domaine in 2004 and nothing but quality was in his mind from the word go. Stunning wines throughout the range we tasted and yet another winemaker to watch for!

Bernard Minchin
The final leg of the Loire wine trek was now in sight and we were on our way north east to Bué, a small village in the Sancerre Appellation. A Narnia world of fields of frost finally gave way to the spectacular steep côteaux of the Sancerre vineyards.  

At the very top of the central, windy road in the heart of Bué we met characterful Joel Cirotte of Domaine de La Croix St Laurent. Joel works the domaine’s vines and makes the wine with his wife Sylvie, daughter Marie and his son Fabien who also brings experience from New Zealand to the family estate. Although based in the Sancerre Cru of Bué the Cirotte family have vineyards in nearby Crezancy and the slopes of Sancerre itself. 

Micro-cuvees is the name of the game here, each tiny parcel being carefully vinified apart to make either a single wine or to be part of a complex blend. A classy winemaker … and it looks like the close friendship with Alphonse Mellot has rubbed off on this tiny estate.
Joel Cirotte
A wonderful lunch was laid on by Sylvie in the cosy, thatched family cottage, lovely wines finished with some delightful local goat cheeses.
Before heading to Sancerre village itself we took a small stop in another world famous appellation: Pouilly-Fume!

Christophe Denoel at the Caves de Pouilly has done wonders for the growers by introducing new winemaking techniques, vinification and bottling facilities. This has filled the missing link and the wines produced are of the highest quality. It’s no surprise that we have been buying from them ever since this revolution and the cave is now home to two of our top selling wines: the Larmes de Pierre and Les Rochettes. The 2013s were no disappointment and quality is high across the board.

However, before leaving Pouilly-Fume there is one place which is a must visit: the legendary Domaine Didier Dagueneau. Since Didier’s tragic death in 2008, the domaine has been run with the same high standards by his talented son-and-daughter team, Louis-Benjamin and Charlotte.  We were fortunate to have a personal tour by Charlotte and we tasted a range of recent vintages including 2012s from vat. Incredible wines and an unforgettable tasting experience.

Charlotte Dagueneau
Sancerre next and the amazing amphitheatre of vineyards with the village itself sitting on the crest of the famous hill were soon insight.  After Dagueneau there is only one place to go next and that’s to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Alphonse Mellot!

The Domaine Alphonse Mellot is located in the heart of the Sancerre village and has a quite extraordinary history, celebrating 500 years of winemaking this year! The current winemakers Alphonse Jr and his sister Emmanuelle are the 19th generation! They continue to push boundaries in all aspects of winemaking and the immaculate cellars and wines show this clearly.

We were met by Emmanuelle Mellot for a quick tour of the underground maze of barrels and fermentation cellars before being joined by Alphonse Jr and getting onto the serious work of the tasting.  We were extremely privileged to have an extensive range tasting of the 2011, 2012 and 2013’s. For me, the most impressive are the rich, concentrated barrel-aged Pinot Noirs … unlike anything I have ever tried from Sancerre before.

Alphonse and Emmanuelle
Now dark outside, the day was far from over as we drove back down from Sancerre to see a couple of good value Sancerre producers in the village of Verdigny.  First we popped into Domaine Raimbault-Pineau. Jean-Marie is a true farmer and seems to have his fingers in all sorts of pies. His chaotic winery with vats of wines everywhere is a real treasure trove; you just have to find the gems! We get to taste all the 2013’s here and we certainly found some good and well priced wines.

Jean-Marie Raimbaut
Just round the corner in the same village are Domaine Daniel Reverdy and our good friend Cyrille Reverdy who is now running his father’s domaine. This is an amazing story: Abi found this ambitious young winemaker 10 years ago. Neither he nor his father had ever put any of their grapes into bottle as they were part of the cooperative. That was until young Cyrille made an experimental vat in a makeshift winery. Abi bought the wine and 10 years on Cyrille is making magnificent and successful Sancerre and we are the only wine merchant who gets our very own blend!  He has also, for the first time, added a lovely limited-production rosé to his repertoire. And yes, we snapped this up there and then. All of it! 

It had been a long day and laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries and cameras were battery-less as we headed back up to the village to meet the other half of the Mellot family at Domaine Joseph Mellot.  The tasting was scheduled for early tomorrow which meant we could check into the Hotel Panoramic perched on the crest of the hill of Sancerre, but we would have to wait until tomorrow to see the spectacular views.  Olivier the sales manager and winemaker Frederic met us in the lobby and kindly invited us to dine with them and domaine owner Catherine Mellot at the exquisite restaurant La Tour, 100m from the hotel.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Loire - Day 3

Tuesday 10th

An early start. And after sampling a quite exceptional array of Madame Diderot’s jams and preserves it was only a short, icy walk to the cellars of Couly-Dutheil.  

Not a long history here, but since being established 80 years ago, the domaine has risen to become the flagship of Chinon wines. The impressive, medal-winning consistency was sparked off by founder Baptiste Dutheil’s first Gold medal back in 1927! 

We were met by current owner Monsieur Jacques Couly who gave us the run down on the 2013 vintage. It was an average year in volume terms, but a late harvest meant achieving ripeness and phenolic maturity was challenging. However, the Couly-Dutheil team are convinced that the meticulous vineyard work and speed of harvest has made a good wine this year. 

The domaine is a Cabernet Franc specialist, their wines really are quite special and I feel they do have to be drunk at the perfect moment with the perfect accompaniment.  They have pulled back on the use of oak in recent years and the wines need bottle age. However once these wines do have the necessary bottle age they are sublime, with a marvellous finesse of blackberry fruit … not heavy wines but great with hearty dishes! We tasted the whole range with La Closerie and Clos l’Echo cuvees standing out for me.

M. Jacques Couly
Everything was still frosted over when we emerged from the cellars of Couly-Dutheil so it was hasty defrosting mission on the car before setting off for Vouvray to meet the wonderful Champalou family.  We made good time and an hour later we were east of the town of Tours amongst the famous chalk soils of the Vouvray plateau and the unique climate created by the Loire tributaries the Cisse and the Brenne.  Less influence from the Atlantic creates a more continental climate with warm summers and freezing winters (witnessed first hand!) allowing dry, off-dry, noble rot and sparkling wines to be made from the dominant Chenin Blanc grape.  

The remarkable Champalou family started from scratch with a tiny 1.5 hectares and is purely a family affair. Smiling Didier works the vines, his adorable wife Catherine runs the business and their talented daughter Celine is now in charge of the winemaking.  Unlike most Vouvray domaines that are 60% sparkling production, the Champalou’s 21 hectares of Chenin Blanc are geared to make the original, off-dry-style Vouvray where the limy acidity and classic quince and citrus fruit are rounded beautifully with a splash of sweetness! So if you want the real Vouvray then this is the wine to drink!

The Champalou Family
Time to thaw out and after a minor puncture set-back, the heating was on full blast as we motored to the little village of Montrichard in the Cher Valley to meet Pierre Chainier of Maisons Channier and Paul Buisse.  Pierre welcomed us and ushered us into a little bistro where a warming bavette frites was again a welcomed respite from the still-sub-zero outside temperature! 

Pierre is a tall man with a sense of purpose and determination. Tony knew his father well, was the first to buy wine from him and instantly remembered the same characteristics. With his uncanny likeness to Richard O’Brien I was expecting him to either give me a crystal or burst into a rendition of ‘Time Warp’ at any moment during the tasting! With modern cellars and a now-large production, Pierre and his two brothers run a tight ship. They now specialise in Sauvignon from the Touraine region but also make a very good Vouvray.

Pierre Channier & Tony
Next stop and close by in the village of Noyers-sur-Cher is Domaine Bellevue. Here owner-winemaker Patrick Vauvy, a friendly giant, is busy making no fuss, formidable, natural-style wines.  His giant smile is warm but his cellar today was freezing! We braved again the sub zero temperatures that were naturally settling the young 2013’s and tasted through every vat, each sample taken by his shovel-like hands! These wines have a unique, individual winemaker stamp and the purity of the 2013s are very impressive.

Patrick Vauvy
A short drive only for our last meeting in the village of Pouille with the Bougrier family who make our stunning Sauvignon Blanc, the hero bestseller Abbesse.  The fifth-generation winemaker and grower Noël Bougrier was on hand with his trusty side kick Olivier for the extensive tasting of the 2013s. This is our 20th year working with the Bougrier family and a great relationship has been built. And with this stunning quality of wine will certainly continue.

Glad once more to be inside out of the cold and after a quick cup of tea we launched into the mammoth tasting in the well-lit tasting room. We finally decided blends after two hours of solid tasting and the 2013 Abbesse is clearly a triumph: explosive Sauvignon aromas matched with fruit salad and wonderful acidity on the palate. It will be released in March so get your orders in quickly or risk the inevitable sell out!

Back out into the extremely cold and dark night for a short drive to our hotel and dinner hosted by the Bougriers at the magnificent Château La Voute. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Loire - Days 1 & 2

A pleasant Sunday train that stopped at every quaint station from Bordeaux finally got me to the town of Roche Sur Yon. Along the way, I noticed the layers of clothing of the passengers waiting on the platform were slowly increasing every 10km northwards. So it shouldn't have been a shock as I stepped from the train … but it was. Absolutely freezing! Bienvenu dans La Vallée de la Loire

To greet me was 'monsieur Loire', Charles Sydney. Charles once worked for Mr Laithwaite but over the last 25 years he has made the Loire his territory.

We were soon on the road and into the Fiefs Vendeens appellation, a 60-minute drive south of Muscadet.  The first visit was Domaine Mourat and a tasting with young winemaker/owner Jeremie Mourat.  The village of Mareuil may be dominated by an ancient 12th Century castle but there is nothing ancient about the modern underground winemaking facilities and cellars at Mourat. The Mourat family have installed the latest vinification technology and created a super cool-fermentation and aging cellar using various sized cement egg vats!

Egg-shaped fermenters
The wines are as smart as the cellar; sublime Chenin and explosive Sauvignon Blanc, a must-try from this hidden gem

Darkness had already descended on this northerly wine region and we headed to Nantes the capital of the Loire for the night. 

If you are in Nantes and manage to navigate the mayhem of the road, tram, pedestrian and cycle system, check out the awesome, elaborately decorated La Cigale restaurant. Great seafood and plenty of top Muscadet to choose from.
La Cigale restaurant

A bitterly cold start to the week with the temperature at -4°C (which was to be the theme throughout) but the sun was shining in beautiful Muscadet wine country.
Frosty vines

First visit was Vignerons de Pallet in the Muscadet Cru ‘Le Pallet’ located on the right bank of the river Sèvre. With its warmer weather and shallow, stony gneiss and gabbro soils, this unique terroir is the earliest of all the Crus to harvest each year. 

Ten dynamic growers have come together to make a blend of their very best vineyards called ‘Les Dix du Pallet’; a vibrant, citrusy Muscadet Sur Lie cuvee.  Laurent Bouchaud showed me the impressive, but young, 2013 wines; a relatively good year for Muscadet but still a lower than average yield due to some rain-initiated botrytis. Stocks are still low from the disastrous 2011 and 2012 hail-riddled vintages so my tip is to snap up these wines when released in March after the Sur Lie ageing process will have rounded out the palate. 
Three of Les Dix du Pallet

Next stop was to meet young Bordeaux-trained winemaker Pierre Sauvion at Chateau Cleray-Sauvion.  Pierre has recently returned from Australia where he has been working at Mad Fish Estate in Margret River.  As the domaine specialises in whites, Pierre presented a lovely selection of 2013s from the Muscadet Crus, Touraine, Anjou, Saumur and Bonnezeaux. The Vin de France Folie de Pierre Chardonnay tastes terrific, watch this space
Pierre Sauvion

Another fine Muscadet in Domaine Gadais came next. We passed the famous byzantine church in St. Fiacre-Sur-Maine (easily recognisable on the domaine’s Vieux Clocher label) where we were met by Christophe Gadais and his young, up-and-coming winemaker son Pierre-Henri.  Pierre-Henri is being groomed to take the reins and has just returned from the southern hemisphere, working with Tony’s close friend Jane Hunter of Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough. Domaine Gadais has some fine vineyards that sit in the confluence of the Sèvre and the Maine rivers with predominantly slate soils giving a racy Muscadet with great finesse. The 2013 is looking very good indeed with nice weight and flavoursome acidity.
Pierre-Henri & Christophe Gadais

A light lunch at the little family bistro Auberge La Gaillotiere was a welcome retreat from the freezing cold and reminded me of our own long-lost Voyageurs restaurant back in Castillon.

And I cannot keep the wonderful and quite random UFO roundabout at La Haye-Fouassiere to myself!
UFO roundabout

After the limbs had thawed we were back on the road in the direction of Côtes de Grandlieu; a Muscadet Cru just south of Nantes. It’s another exceptional micro-climate influenced by the warmth of the huge Lac de Grandlieu. Here is where winemaker Jérôme Choblet makes stylish wines at his Domaine des Herbauges. Jérôme is a bit of a pioneer in the region and has also planted Chardonnay in China. He’s quite a busy man and unfortunately couldn’t meet us in person this time round.  

The diverse slopes and valleys of this domaine is dominated by a huge ‘parasol pine’ tree, one of the last standing this far north.  We were greeted at the domaine by the bubbly and knowledgeable Severine Larcher who showed us the range of wines.
Severine Larcher

Jérôme has converted the domaine to 100% organic and his careful grass cover management results in lower yields and in turn a more concentrated style of Muscadet.  His obvious passion for Chardonnay is evident too and he has set a new trend planting this varietal on prime Muscadet terroir.  This is certainly one to watch!

Tony Laithwaite and our head of buying Abi Hirshfeld were soon to be arriving at the tiny Nantes airport where I would be picking them up and then making our way to the historic Loire town of Chinon for tonight’s dinner and stop over. We arrived at around 9pm in the quaint ‘preserved in time’ Hotel Diderot!